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Understanding Breast Cancer in Black Women: Part 2 – A Look at Obesity and Exercise

What is Obesity

Obesity is a term that describes when a person has too much body fat. This is different from overweight, which means that a person weighs more than they should. A person can weigh more due to greater muscle or bone mass, fat, or body fluid. Obesity can be caused by many factors such as overeating, eating foods high in fat, or not getting enough exercise. Doctors care about obesity because it may help other medical conditions develop.

The Role of Obesity

Doctors have learned that women who are obese are more likely to have breast cancer and that obesity helps breast cancers and other cancers grow. Black women are more likely to be obese when they learn they have breast cancer.  This may help us understand why fewer Black women with breast cancer survive.

Diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure closely relate to obesity. These diseases make the body less able to fight cancer. More Black women have these diseases before their cancer. Obesity and long-term diseases may play large parts in the decreased survival of Black women with breast cancer.

The Importance of Exercise

Research has found that obese people or people with high blood sugar have high levels of hormones that support cancer growth. Exercise may help lower these hormones.

Women who do not get enough exercise are more likely to have:

  • breast cancer in their lifetime
  • breast cancers that return (recurrence)
  • worse chances of surviving breast cancer

A study was done to learn how many women with breast cancer were getting exercise. The study showed that Black women with breast cancer got the least amount of exercise.  Exercise has many benefits. It burns fat, while lowering blood sugar and blood pressure. Research now shows these benefits can increase survival for Black women with breast cancer.

What does this mean?

  • Obesity and long-term diseases decrease survival for many Black women with breast cancer
  • Exercise may help increase survival for Black women with breast cancer

See A Look at Income and What You Can Do to learn more.


Dr Cynthia Owusu MD is a breast cancer specialist at UH Seidman Cancer Center, and member of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University.  She has done community-based research on the role of exercise in cancer prevention.

For more information:

Go to the Breast Cancer health topic.